The Good, Bad, and Ugly: Clippers Struggling, Injury-Stricken in November

The Clippers have lost their last five games, and are not playing particularly well on either side of the court. What’s going on?

Good:

Sweet, Sweet Lou Williams:

While Lou was a dud against the Pelicans on Saturday, scoring just 14 points on 16 shots, he’s been a revelation this season. He’s averaging 16.4 points per game on 45/36/93 shooting, and is even chipping in 3.2 assists per contest. He scores efficiently (most of the time), and works his way open far more frequently than Clippers’ gunners of the past. Lou’s passing has been a pleasant surprise, and he’s actually had the best connection with the Clippers’ big men of any perimeter player, connecting on lobs with DJ and Willie Reed time and again. Even his defense hasn’t been quite as bad as anticipated before the season. He’s been more “well below average” than “train wreck”, and Clippers’ fans will take that happily. Many people thought Lou would be a dispensable piece that the Clippers could trade away, but that is not proving to be the case. His scoring, shot creation, and explosiveness is incredibly useful for a Clippers’ team that has struggled in all three categories thus far this season.

Rookies Standing Out:

Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell have been fantastic relative to expectations (especially for second round rookies). Both have flashed serious defensive potential, with Thornwell already grading out as an above average on-ball defender, and Evans demonstrating similar abilities against the Pelicans. Thornwell is tough, physical, and has great instincts: he always knows where to be, and is constantly in position for steals and blocks. Evans on the other hand is swift and long. His wingspan enables him to get back into plays that he is already out of, and his sheer speed makes it tough for opponents to get by him. He was particularly impressive in navigating picks and screens, slipping right by rather than running headlong into them. Offense is a bit rougher story for both rooks. Neither is fully comfortable shooting the NBA three-ball (though they haven’t shot poorly in incredibly limited sample sizes), and each struggles with their own difficulties. Thornwell doesn’t have the handle or first step to really blow by defenders barring a hard closeout, and Evans really underestimates NBA length and height sometimes when venturing into the paint. However, right now, those are nits being picked. Sindarius and Jawun have given the Clippers quality rotation minutes immediately after being called into action, and that’s an extremely impressive feat for rookies. The future is bright for these two.

Bad:

DJ’s Defense: DeAndre Jordan hasn’t been as exceptional defensively this season as he has in recent years. He’s still been good, but the rim protection has been lagging a bit. Notably, the effort level doesn’t always seem to be quite there. It’s possible that DJ is sulking a little due to lack of involvement on the offensive end. Big men like to get touches on offense, even if they’re primarily defense-oriented players, and DJ is probably no exception. Without Chris Paul to feed him lobs and get him easy looks when he’s in prime position, DJ hasn’t been as involved offensively this year. His shots per game aren’t down, but he is shooting over two free throws less per game than he did last season—a result of those early looks going away. While the Clippers do need to look for DJ more frequently, and should certainly run more pick and roll with him, he also needs to give full effort on the court whether he’s getting 10 touches a game or 3. Of course, there could be something else wrong with DJ, and it’s impossible to speculate without actually knowing the cause. Maybe his asthma is flaring up again. Regardless, DJ’s activity has been lessened of late (blocks are down to 1.0 per game from 1.7 last season), and it is noticeable.

Ugly:

The Injuries:

Injuries suck. They suck for players, they suck for teams, they suck for fans. And nothing is worse than when injuries compound, crippling a team and sucking the life from its players. Such a thing, has, sadly, happened to the Clippers over the past couple weeks. First it was Milos Teodosic, out with a plantar fascia injury on the second game of the season. Then it was Danilo Gallinari, sidelined with a strained left glute, last Saturday. Finally, Pat Beverley quietly had his troublesome right knee drained of fluid on Wednesday, and remains out with a nebulous designation of “sore right knee”. Those three players make up 60% of the Clippers’ starting lineup on opening night, and their absences can’t be understated. Gallinari might have struggled to start the season, but he’s still a competent defender and a player who can create a semi-decent shot on any given possession. Pat Beverley is the heart and soul of this squad, and the floppy-haired Milos is its brain. The team simply won’t function properly down three such crucial pieces, and it hasn’t. That’s not to say the Clippers can’t play better, even without their missing players. They absolutely can, and will have to if they want to stay afloat in the Western Conference. Hopefully Gallinari makes his return soon, as his scoring and creation is desperately needed.

The Offense:

The funny thing is, the offense actually hasn’t been that bad over the past handful of games. During their five-game losing streak, the Clippers have scored 104, 101, 107, 111, and 103 points, for an average of around 105 per game. That’s not world-beating, but it isn’t horrible either. The problem isn’t the effectiveness so much as the ugliness. The Clippers are scoring points through ISO ball, whether that be through Blake Griffin in the post, Lou Williams attacking the basket, or Austin Rivers taking step-back threes. Ball and player movement have grinded to a halt. Why? Some of it is coaching to be sure, but I think the bulk of it is on the players. The Clippers’ top three options right now are the aforementioned Blake, Lou, and Austin. None of them are guys who move the ball around a lot, and while all can pass, none are pass-first. The ball simply isn’t likely to move swiftly or frequently with those three guys taking a lot of shots. That doesn’t entirely excuse the ball movement, but the Clippers also lack players who thrive off ball. Their current (healthy) squad is composed of players who have the ball in their hands, or those who aren’t offensively focused (Wes, Thornwell). I just don’t see this offense coming to life until Gallo and Beverley return at the least, but really not until Milos makes his glorious return. The Clippers will have to manufacture points the hard way in the meantime.

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